Cruising Across Carolina
This summer, The N&O’s Martha Quillin is on a road trip across the Tar Heel State’s backroads and byways. And you’re invited. Plus, we have a full guide to NC’s beaches and coastal getaways — and the famed Mr. Beach’s pick for the best beach in the nation, right in our state.
The best parts of Ocracoke Island stand out like Scotch Bonnet shells in the sand: the hour-long ferry ride, the untouched dunes, a 200-year-old lighthouse and the world’s most infamous pirate — his beard aflame.
But for Dr. Beach, the world’s authority on oceanfront enjoyment, Ocracoke stands out just as much for what it lacks: strips malls, high-rise condominiums or smoking by the sea.
With that in mind, he ranked Ocracoke the best beach in the nation, pushing Hawaii out of the top spot. Lighthouse Beach in nearby Buxton also scored a spot on the top-10 list, coming in at no. 6.
“Ocracoke is my favorite getaway beach,” he said from the island on Sunday. “You don’t go to Ocracoke to play golf and stay at the Ritz. That’s much of the appeal.”
For Dr. Beach, whose real and lesser-known name is Stephen Leatherman, choosing an annual oceanfront winner is a chance to celebrate not only recreation but also beach safety and ecology.
He grew up in Charlotte and studied at N.C. State University before becoming a professor in Florida, but his best-of list comes together using dozens of criteria, including water quality, rip tides and lifeguards — the last of which is a must-have to be ranked in the top 10.
The island’s remote geography accounts for much of its appeal, though it takes satellite photos to notice that its actually forms three capes strung together by barrier islands.
Not only that, but its village sits on the bay side of the island, an oddity that dates to its early history, when most of its inhabitants got around by boat.
Most impressive, Dr. Beach observed, is how well Ocracoke has rebounded since Hurricane Dorian in 2019, when water from Pamlico Sound ran 7 feet deep through residents’ houses.
An odd thing about that storm, Dr. Beach said: It struck from the bay rather than the ocean. But the island, led by its 75-foot beacon, dug itself out.
“Storms can come and go, but really that beach can take it,” he said. “Nature takes care of itself.”
Between its history — Blackbeard anchored there in semi-retirement — and its small-town, old-timer vibe, Ocracoke appeals to the more easygoing traveler. What it lacks in Ferris wheels and bikini contests it makes up in shell gathering.
The only thing Dr. Beach would change is shifting more to a car-free environment, maybe adopting more of the golf cart atmosphere of Bald Head Island. But compared to the flashy crowd-pleasers of Florida, it’s already a slow-pace alternative.
“I love Miami Beach,” he said, “but frankly, you’re out there at night and somebody might mug you. That’s not going to happen in Ocracoke.”
Dr. Beach’s 2022 Top 10
1. Ocracoke Island lifeguarded beach, Outer Banks, NC
2. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida
3. Coopers Beach, Southampton, NY
4. St. George Island State Park, Florida panhandle
5. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
6. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, NC
7. Coronado Beach, San Diego, California
8. Wailea Beach, Maui, Hawaii
9. Beachwater Park, Kiawah Island, SC
10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts